Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Detail of the Last Supper

 

 

 

 

I sat with Hayes, flinching every time shrapnel flew over our heads.  We were laying low behind a barrier the company’d built waiting for the Yanks to come on.  My rifle shook, the outward sign of the quivering in my stomach. 

I wished I was on sniper duty, up in a tree further back like usual, picking off the blue boys as they came charging up.  I didn’t take any pleasure in watching men drop, not men on either side, but I figured that one man dying took away another death that might be waiting for me.  Yet now that I was a corporal, Sargeant McCausland ordered me to the field.  Ellis, you can’t be a leader if you don’t know what you’re leading.

The shells were edging closer; fewer were falling in back of us.  The ones dropping in front crept closer so that they rattled the insides of my ears. 

Hayes reached over and touched my hand.  He said something that I couldn’t hear.  I had the Lord’s Prayer on my lips.   All I could do was repeat it and keep down until I heard the Yanks screaming up on us, until I heard the order to fire.

*  *  *

Back in camp that night, I sat staring at the fire I’d built.  I didn’t feel like eating and sure as hell not some cornmeal crawling with weevils.   I heard Hayes laughing, that deep-bellied laugh you could hear most anywhere in camp, and I could tell that he was coming toward me.

 

He didn’t stop when he reached me, just said, “Follow me, Ellis.”  Hayes was the kind of man you listened to, so I was up and on my feet and had to run to catch him.

It was around nine and most campfires were dead.  Men lucky enough to have pipes smoked them, and I could make out the orange glow of tobacco burning in the bowls.  The low hum of conversations mixed with the infinitesimal flames, making the camp feel lived in. 

Long before we could see the light that shone from the medical tent, the smell emanating from the dead and dying hit us.  Hayes plodded on, and I had to double my pace to keep up with him, all the while every nerve in my body hollered for me to turn around.  I considered abandoning Hayes, but I already felt the coward for the fear I’d shown earlier in the day.

The lanterns sitting atop the operating table lit the interior of the tent so that the men inside appeared as shadows.  As we got closer, I heard a man coughing; then a howl broke through the air around me, and what sounded like a banshee’s cry reached through the wool coat on my shoulders and touched the hairs on my arms.

Hayes must have sensed the weakening in my knees.  He was at my elbow, pulling me forward.  “Cover your mouth and nose, boy.”  He didn’t let go until he had dragged me past the tent, past the halo of light spilling from its insides and into the darkness that was beyond the camp’s confines.

The hum of flies pressed in my ears.  The smell swelled, and I felt hot and lost.

Hayes struck a match and knelt, revealing a pile of limbs.  I could see that he had his hands over his mouth, and when he talked his words were muffled, but they came out forceful all the same. He held the match close enough to see the whiteness of a bone, revealing it as clean cut, as something sawed off by one of the doctors. “See that blackness in the meat.” 

I nodded.  A fly landed on my face, and my stomach lurched.  I shut my eyes and doubled over trying to hold my guts in, but it was no use and the bile hit my lips, then my fingers.

“You’re throwing it up.  The vapors.  The effluvia,” Hayes said.  “It’s that smell, that rotting that you got to be afraid of, not bullets.  It gets in your nose and putrefies your marrows.”

The match flickered, then went out.  His voice passed through the dark between us.  “Doc from back home told me the effluvia carries the trots, the shakes, swamp fever, every sickness you can imagine.  It lodges in mud and sitting water.  The diseases can kill you, but what’s worse is when you’ve inhaled too much of the stench and it burrows into your soul and smothers any moral sense you got.  It’ll take those wings you were saving to fly to Heaven and weight them so heavy they’ll sink you into hell.”

I felt his body as it passed by me.  I rose from where I was kneeling, wiped my mouth.  A bitterness hung in my cheeks from the vomit. We walked in silence until we reached the remnants of my fire.  There were a few cinders left burning more orange than the sun.   I could only make out Hayes’ outline, but I could feel his stare through the dark.

“You got a Bible?”

“I do.”

“Do you read it?”

“Yes.  At night, morning during breakfast.”

“Get all those prayers in your memory because the devil is going for you.  Coming at you through the mud and the rot.”

When he walked away, I threw up again.   

*  *  *

For two weeks, we were on the road marching to find some damn Yankee cavalry we’d come to believe was more a spirit in our commanders’ minds than anything else.  Hayes often came by at night to see how I was doing, to give me a bit of extra cornpone and to hash out whatever Biblical verse he was wanting to discuss.  

I didn’t see him for three days and got worried.  When I asked around, one of the men from his hometown informed me he had passed.  Of what, I wanted to know, but no one had the answer.  I finally tracked down the camp doctor and demanded the cause. 

He looked at me with eyes the color of driftwood.  “It just happens, son.  There’s no real cause other than we have to die sometime.”

I didn’t sleep that night or the next.  I didn’t sleep until I got permission from Sergeant McCausland to keep watch in the tree for scouts.

“The pickets have been seeing more and more every night,” I said. 

“You’re still marching in the battles.  Nothing changes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t kill anyone but a Yank or yourself.”  He shook his head and pushed past me. 

*  *  *

All night it’d been drizzling.  I’d taken my post in the trees right after supper, my Enfield spread across my lap.  When it rained, I’d sleep high up, away from the poison.  My men had started giving me a hard time, but I was going to be away from all the filth churned up by rain.  After I shot two scouts right after supper one night, the jokes quieted, though there were a few that still looked at me strange.

My back rested on the base of two limbs.  My feet were propped up against the tree trunk.  I was half-asleep.  Eyes closed, I was startled by a whisper.

“Ellis.  Hey, Ellis.”

I thought it was my sister and I was back in Tennessee.  “Sarah, we got another hour until it’s time for chores.” 

“Ellis, it ain’t Sarah.  It’s Johns,” he said. 

I saw him in the purple light of dawn, the color the sky turns before the sun pushes out the night.  He edged up to the base of the tree.  The fool didn’t even have on his cap.

He was a tall boy, but had a bulk to him I imagined a railroad worker would have.  He was twenty, ten years younger than me.  I’d stayed away from him on account of all the men saying that something wasn’t right in his head.  The man, when he wasn’t eating or fighting, was always scribbling away in his journal.  He never’d sent a letter, though we knew he had a wife and child.

“Weather’s no good,” he said.  He crossed his arms and leaned against the base of the tree.

“Well hell,” I said.  “Is that what you came to tell me?”

“Keep having dreams.”  His eyes shifted back toward camp.  He hunched down in a squat and put a stick in his mouth.  “Keep having these dreams that I don’t want.”

“Why are you telling me?”

He held his hand open so he could catch the rain.  “You can’t sleep either.”  He twisted his head around so I could see the scruff of his beard and the stick pointing out the center of his mouth.  The rain that had fallen on his face gave him an honest look.

“Johns, I’m on duty.  I’m not trying to sleep.  Get the hell out of here.”

“These dreams,” he said.  “Can’t shake’em.  It’ll be all nice, us singing the Bonnie Blue Flag or God Save the South.”  His lips got straight.  He had his teeth clenched and never took his eyes off me.  “Look, I’m not afraid of dying.  I’m prepared to meet the Lord.  Made my peace.”

“Sure, Johns.  I’ve seen you praying and reading your Bible.”

“That’s right,” he said.  He pulled the stick from his mouth and tossed it underhand back toward camp.  “I’ve got about all of Matthew memorized.  ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son…’”

“I trust you,” I said.  The purple began fading to pink, and I watched as Johns removed a navy blue book from his coat’s pocket.  The whole camp knew it to be his journal.

He flipped through the pages and stopped at what looked liked the middle.  Without so much as glancing at the writing, he started prattling.  “The company’s always in formation, lined up in four rows, one behind the other, and I’m in the middle.  A load of canister rips into the men around me, tears off arms, erases lips so a man’s whole face becomes a gaping mouth.”

I’d seen all this happen in the battles I’d been in.  The Rebel Yell and then it’d sound like the clouds and blue of the sky were crumbling down on your shoulders.

“I can’t hear the shot, the snapping line of Springfields.  I can’t see the smoke or the enemy.  The only thing I can hear is the way skin cracks as bullets tear through it.  There’s thuds of bones and sloshing intestines.  I march and I crunch skeletons.  The Rebel Yells are gurgling in men’s throats.

“I make it as far as the command to fire, as far as kneeling and reaching for my ramrod, when the shot of canister hits.  Behind me, I can hear the men open their mouths to swallow bits of my skull.  My eyes shoot through the air and land in the mouth of a man with his black sideburns.  His teeth cut through my eyes, and it’s as dark as when they stick you in the ground.”

He closed the journal.  His fingers clinched around the binding so tight I knew his knuckles were red.  “Ellis, it may look grave dark, but I’ll never have that resting place where I can make peace with God.  Those men will carry me around in their stomachs, carry me to their homes after we win.   They’ll kiss their sweethearts, but I won’t ever feel the lips of my Mattie again.”

Johns leaned his weight against the tree.  The whole of what he’d said made my stomach tremble.  The only sane thing of it was fear.

*  *  *

News in camp was a battle was coming.  The scouts had seen movement, had bumped into an enemy patrol behind our lines in the late afternoon.  Shots were exchanged, but nobody’d been killed.  The colonel ordered all cards to be packed up.  No tobacco.  No songs.  No cooking fires.

That night it was dry enough to sleep on the ground; trouble was I couldn’t sleep. After our conversation, Johns had taken to laying his blanket close to mine, so close that I could hear his never-ending scribbling as if it were whispers in my ear.

I prayed all the prayers that I’d memorized and then prayed my own kind.  God, please make the air pure as the stars in the sky.  God, please let me die before I become a demon.  God, please take pity on me and smite the effluvia dead.

An hour passed and sleep was still elusive.  Johns’ scratching hadn’t let up at all.

“Damnit,” I said to him.  “Knock it off.”

“What does it matter?”

I sat up and grabbed the pen from his hand and tossed it into the dark.  Without the fires he wouldn’t be able to find it.

“What the hell, Ellis.”  He slammed his notebook shut and hit me in the head with it.  Something fell out of it, and he grabbed it up and held it against the sky searching for the moon’s light.

“If that tore,” he said.  “It’s the only photograph I have of Mattie.”

“What’s she look like?”  I said.

He placed the picture back into his journal.  “It’s been two years now.  I imagine she looks older.  She’s probably tanned from working outside.”

I shut my eyes and tried to conjure up the countenance of a woman that’d marry a man like Johns, a man whose face looked more like a boy’s, whose beard was always short and light.  But I could only summon a picture of my sister, Sarah, older than I was by eight years, dead now for six.

My mind held her face for as long as it could; then her presence receded.  I rolled to my side.  Johns sighed.  Neither one of us slept, him probably dreaming of his body roaming in another, me, hand over mouth, breathing in the moisture of my own breath.

Around midnight Sergeant McCausland came over to us.  I could make out a mass of men behind him, but couldn’t tell who they were.

“A few regiments tangled earlier today, about a half mile from here,” he said.  “There’s some bodies need to be buried.  Let’s move.” 

I stood up and as I did, felt my soul and body part. One of the boys handed me a canteen and nodded.  I lifted it to my mouth and smelled a sweet sourness.  I took my fair share, three good gulps, let its punch ring in my throat, let the unburned charcoal rest in my cheeks.  I handed it to Johns.

At the edge of camp our party collected ten shovels that the last detail had used.  I kept my distance knowing there would be mud stuck to them from deep in the earth.  I’d been smart and grabbed my Enfield before we left.  I’d find a good tree far enough from the bodies and go on lookout.

We walked in a line, one behind the other, though calling it straight would be a flat-out lie.  The walking was stumbling, was a lot of tripping.  We didn’t sound like Indians treading along in moccasins.

I could see the shoulders of the man in front of me, hear his boots coming down hard on dead leaves.  I ran into a tree and Johns bumped into me, knocking my head all the harder against the trunks.

We lurched along until the smell hit us.  The odor drove us back as good as any solid line of Yankees would.  It was unclean sick rooms, one built on top of the other.  Some of the boys fell out and vomited. My body froze, every mechanism in it.  I knew it would be better to throw it up, to get the effluvia out and clear my blood, but I couldn’t gag.  I felt Hayes’ words all over my skin. 

McCausland handed the canteen to the soldier behind him and had us sit for a minute.  When the canteen reached me, I took a swig and then tilted my head back and poured some down each of my nostrils.  I coughed and choked, but hoped it might catch what had managed to drift in.  After all the boys had another nip, McCausland told us to move.

By a half moon, we saw piles of bodies.  I guessed about a hundred men.  They’d been stacked one on the other, but they weren’t a wall, just lumps of smell.  The pile was mostly blue.  I could make out, at most, three browns all jammed at the bottom.

“I’m not burying any Yanks,” the man in front of me said.  “Light’em on fire.”

“No, McKenzie,” said the Sargeant.  “We put them in the earth.  I can kill’em, but I can’t damn their souls.  I hope that’s how they’d treat us.”

“Didn’t treat Hinsdale that way,” Mckenzie said.

In a skirmish, a Billy Yank had thrust a bayonet deep into Hinsdale’s stomach. McKenzie had fallen, concussed by the sound of a cannon, and had seen the whole thing.  The man had smiled at McKenzie as he rammed the point through Hinsdale’s guts.  Hinsdale’s cries had kept McKenzie from running after the killer.

McKenzie sat with him through the night and into the day.  The company assumed he was dead, until he’d run up to the regiment, which was already in formation.  He was covered in blood and had mud caked on his hands.  He didn’t say a thing, just stood there jaw dropped and filthy. 

Sergeant McCausland had approached him slow.  “How are you, McKenize?”

McKenzie stood silent.  After a moment, he turned and McCausland followed him.

When McCausland and McKenzie came back, McCausland ordered Gant and Bradley to accompany McKenzie to Hinsdale’s body.  All they had to dig was an axe that Gant had picked up off the battlefield.

Later that night, Bradley and Gant told us about the hole that McKenzie had dug with his fingers.  A foot deep.  A whole foot deep.

“Bury them anyway,” the Sargeant said.  “We’re doing God’s work.  And check for letters to their families.  People have a right to see their loved one’s last words.”

He gave us permission to start a fire so we could get our bayonets hot enough to bend into hooks.  The hooks let us move bodies without touching them.  My Enfield didn’t have a bayonet, but the Springfields did.  The Sargeant told five men to start digging a trench as wide and deep as they could.

“Corporal Ellis,” he said.  “Take Johns, Lewis, Rucker, McKenzie and Tully and head about a quarter of a mile from that tree there.  I saw another twenty-five or so back that way.”

My men grabbed the five remaining shovels.  With wooden handles resting against their shoulders, they began walking in the direction that McCausland ordered. Whiskey was still bleeding down my throat as we walked.

We passed a house that’d been abandoned during the battle.  The door had been left open by whoever had taken shelter the night before.  A few hundred feet from the door stood a well, a circle of limestone rocks fitted together as best as the chunks could be.  There was no bucket, nothing attached to haul up the water.

After the farm we came into a thicket of pine trees.  Our boots crushed down on the needles.  The branches hid the moon, and the men cursed in front of me.  And then the smell got thick, and Rucker, the lead, stopped and gagged.

I wanted to run to the nearest tree, but there was something about the hooks.  I thought of my neck stuck through with one, and I kept moving up to the front. I placed my hand on Rucker’s shoulder.

A few minutes later we reached a clearing.  Now the moon’s light shone, and we saw the mound of bodies.  It reminded me of the night with Hayes, the clean-cut bone and blackness.

Behind me I heard a clang.  McKenzie lurched by, his hands empty of the shovel he’d been carrying.  I watched as he approached the bodies.  When he was only a few feet away, he knelt and got his face close.  I wanted to yell after him to cover his mouth and nose with his hand, but I didn’t have time to explain everything. 

After a minute McKenzie stood up and spat. “They’re all Yanks. Every last one of them.”  With that he drew back his foot and kicked the dead.  “I’m not digging no hole.”

In a second Rucker was on him.  He grabbed up a handful of McKenzie’s hair and his arm and threw him to the ground.  McKenzie’s shoulder hit first and then his head struck the dead grass.  He didn’t try to get up.   Rucker pulled his foot back as if to kick him, but I guess he thought better of it. “Corporal, what are your orders?”

I couldn’t say anything.   I was too busy fighting off the impulse to run.  The effluvia didn’t have enough time yet to settle into me.  I was sure.

It was Johns that said it.  “We should drag them back to the well and jam them down.  They’d be underground there.”

Without thinking I said, “That’s best.  Check them for letters before you drop them.  McKenzie, you stay behind with me.”

They started dragging the bodies.  I heard Johns curse and turned to see him staring at an arm that had fallen off the body he was pulling.  He hesitated, studied the torso and the arm.  I thought for a minute that he would place the arm on the body so he could drag it all, but he stuck his hook into the portion of the uniform that covered the dead man’s chest.

About that time McKenzie began digging a foot or so away from where I was.  He cut the dirt, and the stones clinked against the metal.  I stood there observing him.  His automatic movements created a raw space in my throat so that I had to look toward the sky and issue a prayer.  It was a muddled version of the Lord’s and one I had concocted about my soul fending off the mud’s poison.    

When I finished I saw that the men were gone.  All had disappeared into the thicket.  I thought for a moment that Mckenzie’d gone with them against my orders.  He wasn’t shoveling anymore.  I started eyeing the trees.  Just as I was about to move, I felt metal against my neck.

“Look, you son of a bitch,” McKenzie said.  “I don’t care if you can shoot the eye out of cat from two miles away.  And I don’t care if you’re a corporal.  Go through the boys on top and look for letters from home.” He shoved me forward. 

I started walking.  Five feet separating us and I could still feel the hard press of the muzzle on my neck.  And then my feet stopped and the moon shined down so strong for a moment I’d thought I’d been blinded.  That’s when the gun exploded, and I felt the bullet zip into the grass only inches from my right foot.  I collapsed, my hand covering my mouth, and when I started to haul myself back up, I saw that the bodies were a finger’s length away.

I heard Rucker’s voice, his boots close on its heels.  There was a thwack, and then Johns had my arm and brought me to my feet.  I looked back and saw McKenzie was on the ground, curled into a ball.  Rucker had hit him with his rifle.

McKenzie rose though and wiped the dirt off his uniform.  He stood slanted in a way I’d never seen a man stand.  “The angels are upon us,” he said. “And I’m planting an Eden.  That coward,” he was pointing at me, “that goddamn tree monster isn’t welcome there.”

There was silence.  McKenzie stared us all down, daring someone to say something.

After a minute Johns slapped me on my back and headed back toward the pile.  As I watched him move, I wanted to say thanks to him for getting us back on track.  When he raised his rifle over his head, I thought it strange.  Before I could say anything, he brought it down on the bodies like a man swinging an ax.  All we heard was a splash of loose gas.  He kept on hacking at the bodies.  Bones shattered.  There were the thumps of hollow stomachs, the snapping of breaking skulls.  A sluice of blood ran toward our feet.

Rucker took off in the woods in the direction of McCausland.  Tully and Lewis followed.  McKenzie broke toward Johns, a shovel in his hands. I could only cover my mouth and watch as the two men struck the pile over and over again.  The last thing I remembered seeing was Johns with an eyeball in his hand, slowly moving it toward his mouth.

*  *  *

When I woke I saw tree branches sprawled out above me.  For a moment, I’d thought I’d dreamt it all, but when I lifted myself up on my elbows, I saw the camp small in front of me.  I got up and started to walk toward it.

I recognized McKenzie’s laugh.  I turned back and saw him, uniform stained rust-brown.  His blond hair was caked together on top of his head. 

“You can try to go back, but they told us they’d kill us.  Right, Johns?”

Johns was sitting there bare-chested, eyes downcast.  “Yep,” he said.  “McCausland said you were mostly responsible.  I had to drag you back and the whole time you walked with your hand over your mouth and nose.”  He paused and looked up.  “I asked for my journal, but they won’t give it to me.  Won’t give me my pen either.”

“Boy’s been tracing his finger through the air all night.” McKenzie said.

“That’s what he does best,” I said.  I licked my lips, became aware of the grit in my teeth.  My hands felt empty, and the emptiness alerted me to my gun’s absence.

“No use trying to find it,” McKenzie said.  “You traded it for a Bible last night.”

“Well, where is that?” I said.

McKenzie motioned behind him.  “Johns tore it up trying to write in it.”

I saw the pages, thousands of them, a strange crop strewn about with no proper rows.  “Johns,” I said, but the sound of a pen against paper seemed to drop from the sky.  I glanced at McKenzie, and he stood smiling, his hands on his hips.  When I looked at Johns, he had his hands in his lap, his bottom lip a grimace.

The scratching got louder.  All I could do was walk over to the tree trunk and begin climbing toward the highest branch.

 

 

 

 

Lauren Eyler is from Kansas City, Kansas. She received her MFA from the University of South Carolina.  Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Saint Ann's Review, r.kv.r.y and other journals.  She is the City of Columbia’s shark fighting champion.